Today is Ganesh Chaturthi. This day marks the beginning of the Ganesh Utsav, a festival that people wait for more than even Diwali, especially in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. As we all know, this festival celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesha, or Ganapati, as he is lovingly called in Maharashtra, the lord of wisdom, prosperity, good fortune and the protector. The celebrations continue for a ten day period (10 lunar days). During the ten days, people often organize community celebrations, and gather around the Ganesh Idol for various activities. In this post, I’d like to remind you of the humble and noble beginnings of this festival in its present form, so dear to all.
Initially, Ganesh Chaturthi used to be a very private festival, in the sense that families celebrated the festival in their homes. Then, during the Freedom Struggle, in 1893, Lokmanya Tilak decided to give this festival a new lease of life. He initiated the tradition of a community celebration of Ganesh Utsav, where a community of people living in the same vicinity got together, set up the decorations for the Ganesh Idol and performed all the rituals. The primary objective on Lokmanya Tilak was to unite people, the Brahmins and the Non-Brahmins, and to raise awareness about the Freedom Struggle as well as issues of governance. The festivals often had people debating over various issues of importance. Also, a lot of cultural activities like dance, music and drama were performed as a part of the celebrations. As a result, this brought people close, forging a strong bond between them. It also served the purpose of portraying the heritage and culture of India.
Over the decades, the festival morphed into an occasion for people to have fun. Even though a few Mandals (the community organizations) took up a few social issues, and depicted them very tastefully, most of the decorations and stalls setup near the Ganesh Idols depicted various religious stories. With time, the festival came to be associated with huge spending to make the decorations, loud (and often terrible) music blaring through speakers late in the night, high environmental pollution due to the use of Plaster of Paris and artificial paints and often (forced) collections from the community members for the funds.
It is now time that we retrospect and take a decision about the direction that this festival should take. In times of terrorist attacks and global issues affecting the neighbourhood, I feel the need for a concerted effort to raise the social awareness on these issues, and bond the community very strongly. If this can also break religious barriers, it would be extremely good. My 2 cents for everyone out there: Ganesh Utsav is a tradition unique to India. Very few places in the world can boast of a community festival of such a scale. We must look at the ideals that inspired Lokmanya Tilak to publicise this festival as a ‘people’s festival’, and constructively use them to solve the problems that face our world, our country and our community.
Wish you all a very Happy Ganesh Chaturthi, and enjoy the next few days. But, don’t forget to contribute to the society in forms other than monetary donations.